When NASA engineers design robots to go to extreme places, they often get inspiration from insects! In this challenge, you'll think about the unique characteristics of insects, like their wings or antennae, and draw a design for a robotic insect that can meet the unique challenges of its environment.


Materials

Anatomy of an insect, identifying the head (front portion), thorax (middle) and abdomen (back portion) of an insect. Labeled on the diagram are: 1) The exoskeleton, a solid dark outline; 2) three pairs of segmented legs; 3) Two long yellow, skinny antenna

1. Learn about insects and their structures

What is an insect? What are its features and what do they help it do? Find out why the insects we see around us every day have different features and what functions these features serve. Insects' bodies are made up of three main parts:

  • A head with eyes, mouth, and antennae
  • A thorax with legs and/or wings
  • An abdomen that contains their organs

Learn about other structures found on insects and their purposes in the table below.


The Structure of Insects

Structure Function
A hard exoskeleton or external skeleton Protects and contains body structures inside
Three pairs of legs (6 legs) Locomotion/movement
Two antennae Touch and sense of smell
One or two sets of wings Flight
Compound eyes (honeycomb pattern) Vision and movement detection


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2. Learn how insects and nature can inspire robotic design

Our five senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing – provide information about the world around us. How can a robot gather information in a similar way to study environments we can't visit in person? Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, often take inspiration from nature when building robots. Some of these robots even go to space! Here are some examples of robots designed at JPL that were inspired by nature:

Robots Inspired by Nature

A cube-shaped robot with chunky legs and large disk-like hands is perched downsloap on a rock as stars pass through the purple and blue night sky above

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LEMUR (Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robots)Can scale rock walls, gripping with hundreds of tiny fish hooks in each of its 16 fingers. Uses artificial intelligence (AI) to find its way around obstacles.
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A tiny clear plastic robot with colorful wires jutting out of it walks over sandy terrain

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SpiderBotA micro robot that is designed to chart the terrain on other planets and explore smaller bodies, such as comets, asteroids, or the Moon.
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A tiny two-wheeled robot with two cameras in the place of eyes rolls over a small rock

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A-PUFFER (Autonomous Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot)Foldable robots that could scout regions on the Moon and gain intel about locations that may be difficult for astronauts to investigate on foot, like hard-to-reach craters and narrow caves.
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An illustration of a cube-shaped robot with six spider-like legs exploring a pink and purple icy surface

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SPARROW (Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds)Would be propelled by steam and hop across the icy terrains, like those found on Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus.
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A circular robot with four skinny legs hangs on to the edge of a space capsule in this artist concept

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GeckobotA gripping system inspired by the tiny hairs on the bottom of geckos' feet allows this robot to cling to vertical walls and other surfaces.
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An orange robot with two spikey wheels on either side of a hexagonal axle

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BRUIE (Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration)Designed for underwater exploration in extraterrestrial, icy waters, this robot uses its two wheels to roll on the underside of the ice covering bodies of water.
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A robot with a torso-like body and four articulating legs

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RoboSimianAn ape-like robot that could respond to disaster scenarios too dangerous for humans.
› Read more
A collage of images of Mars shows a rocky, hilly landscape, an overhead view of a dust devil moving across brown plains, and a rock-filled slope with patches of white frost.

3. Design your own robotic insect

Now it's your turn! On a piece of paper, draw a design for a robotic insect that could withstand the environment on Mars. Get creative, but be sure to include features that would allow your robot to succeed on Mars. Your robotic insect should have features and functions that allow it to explore a place that is:

  • Cold, but has lots of sunlight.
  • Many rocks that may act as obstacles that your robot will need to break apart or go around.
  • Some hills and valleys.
  • Dusty and windy. Can sometimes have dust storms.
  • Long distances to travel. Lots of open space.

Find out more about Mars at the links below to see what else you might want to add to your robotic insect:


About the image: This collage of Mars images from NASA spacecraft shows (counter-clockwise from top):

  • A portion of a panorama image taken by the Curiosity rover on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS › Full image and caption
  • An image captured in 1979 by the Viking 2 lander showing a thin frost surrounding the lander on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech › Full image and caption
  • A 12-mile-high dust devil captured swirling over the plains of Mars in an image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA › Full image and caption

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4. Reflect on your design

Do you think your design would work on Mars and why? What might you change if you were designing a robot for Earth instead?

If your research tells you there are large dust storms on Mars that could impact solar-powered robots or that rocks are incredibly sharp in some areas and could severely damage your robotic insect's wheels (if it has them), would you go back and change something?

Does nature provide good inspiration for spacecraft and robotic design?


About the image: Sharp rocks on Mars are damaging the wheels on the Curiosity Mars rover. You can see holes and other damage to a couple of the wheels in this image taken by the rover on Mars in 2016. After engineers at NASA noticed that Curiosity's wheels were getting damaged, they changed the design of the wheels that would go on the next Mars rover, Perseverance, to make them tougher. › Read more about the new wheel design. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS | + Expand image

5. Record your findings

On the Robotic Insect Worksheet or a sheet of paper, record the following information about your robotic insect:

  1. Your robot's name
  2. The features/structures you included in your design
  3. The functions/abilities of your design
  4. The environmental elements you designed it for and why you chose these specific features
  5. How would your design do on Mars? Would it succeed?
  6. Would you go back and change anything and why?
  7. How did the design process for your robotic insect mimic the design process NASA engineers use to build robots.

6. Explain and compare your design

If possible, compare your robotic insect to one made by a friend or family member. Take turns explaining your robotic insect designs. Discuss what worked better in one design or another and why. If you could combine designs into a super robotic insect, what would you keep and what would you eliminate?